7.

Their buoyant mood lasted all the way out over the Pacific Ocean. That was when they got a good look at the mining operations.

They were flying at ten meters above the wave crests when, a hundred and fifty kilometers southwest of them, a freighter-sized shuttle splashed up out of the sea and began its ascent into the heavens. Another was just coming down through the clouds, and another behind that was just starting down into the top of the atmosphere. As the two fighters sped past, they watched the shuttles pass each other, perhaps exchanging some sort of alien hails. The descending ship plunged into the wild sea fifty kilometers northwest of where the ascending shuttle had emerged, and as Rachel and Clay shot onward, another heaved itself out of the surf and began its upward struggle just as billions of generations of insects had done for hundreds of millions of years. The next shuttle coming down dropped into the water, and the next after that came down out of the unhappy sky.

The two pilots didn’t have anything to say to each other as they sped across the middle Pacific. It was a world now devoid of islands, for whatever reason: no Hawaii, no Midway, no Okinawa or Iwo Jima, nothing in the way of Philippines. Borneo was a wreck. About where Manila would have been, another huge hole lay under the wave, and another sequence of huge freight shuttles rose and fell.

“It’s like they’re big mosquitoes, or ticks or something,” said Rachel.

After a moment, his heart in his throat, Clay could not resist adding, “It’s like they’re humans, only more so.”

A long moment passed. They approached the distorted remains of the Chinese lowlands. Rachel would be irate at Clay. Clay was already irate at Clay, for the suggestion of equivalence. But Rachel sighed and said, “Yeah, that’s the worst thing.”

“We would so do this ourselves,” said Clay.

“We would do it to ourselves,” said Rachel.

“We did do this to ourselves.”

“We would do it to someone else,” said Rachel, “and pat ourselves on the backs about how clever and great we are.”

“Well,” said Clay, “it goes to show. Homo sapiens really is an advanced species.”

“We belong among the great,” said Rachel. “Clearly. Among the winners.”

“Too bad we’re among the losers.”

“Clay,” said Rachel, suddenly serious. “Clay, we are not among the losers. That we are not.” Her face flashed up on his screen where a view of the dilapidated China coast had been. “We will survive this. We will be a better species for it. That is a sworn thing.”

He looked her in the video eye. “I swear it,” he said.

“We should drink to it,” said Rachel.

“We already did, sort of, back on Bluehorse. But yeah. Let’s drink to it. Let’s land somewhere and drink to it.”

“Katmandu?”

“Yeah. Let’s do Katmandu. And we can get married while we’re there.”

“Actually,” she said, “I have another idea about that. But—well, setting course, big boy. You following me still?”

“Into the maw of Hell I will follow you,” said Clay.

“What’s that from?”

“I don’t know. It should be from something. Anyway, it’s true.”

“Okay,” said Rachel. “Not Hell, I hope, but into the maw of something.” She disappeared from his screen and immediately sent him a course. They rose up to 500 meters and increased speed back to a kilometer a second and soon they were climbing over the dirt dumps of lowland China. Ahead of them Szechuan rose, untainted by the mining operation, and beyond it, the heights of the Himalayas. While behind them cyclopean ships dove into the ocean and climbed from it stuffed with metals from the mantle, two tiny fighters shot across the highest natural mountains on Earth on an inscrutable errand of their own.

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